- PHOTO BY KASEY BUBNASH
- THE CHOPPING BLOCK Paso community members, students, and teachers attended a board meeting on March 10 to protest millions of dollars’ worth of cuts to faculty, staff, and classes in the Paso Robles Joint Unified School District.
The dreary weather in Paso Robles on March 10 matched the mood inside its school district's board room that evening, a small space overflowing with impassioned students, staff, faculty, and community members ready to fight another round of budget cuts.
Peppered throughout the packed room, students held up posters begging the Paso Robles Joint Unified School District board of trustees to "think of the students" and "save French" and "save our teacher!" Several of their favorite classes, teachers, and entire programs are on the chopping block, along with 13 classified positions, from maintenance and food service staff to intervention specialists.
Parents and teachers, wearing red in support of the Arts Academy at Bauer Speck, blotted tears from their eyes as administrators discussed the looming possibility of closing the elementary school to save an estimated $850,000 a year.
Paso community members had a lot of questions for the board that night, but one came up over and over again: Why do students, teachers, and staff always have to pay for administrators' mistakes?
"I'm having a really hard time standing in front of you not being extremely mad," said Jeannine Manninger, president of the Paso Robles chapter of the California School Employees Association, which represents the district's classified employees.
Manninger said at the meeting that she meets with administrators on a consistent basis, and while she understands the gravity of the current financial crisis, she said it's always classified employees and teachers who are asked to make sacrifices.
"Not once has the administration been asked to cut salaries or freeze anything," she said. "Let's back off of classified a bit. We can't take any more."
Her comments, like so many others, were met with raucous applause, but they didn't stop the board from approving major cuts. After hours of emotional public comment and presentations, the board approved resolutions allowing district staff to lay off an elementary school music teacher, a high school multimedia teacher, and four classified staff members, while also voting to axe nine currently unfilled classified positions for the 2020-21 school year.
The district is also considering cutting classes and extracurriculars at all grade levels throughout the district, including physical education, art, drama, and journalism classes. Some sports at the elementary school level could be cut, and the high school French program could be eliminated entirely. The classes, according to the district, are those with the lowest enrollment.
The Paso Robles school district has been grappling with a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall for nearly two years now, an issue sparked by apparent overspending and compounded by its lack of adequate reserve funds, declining enrollment and average daily attendance, decreases in state funding, and increases in pension and insurance costs.
The district's most recent financial issues started in June 2018, when a budget report revealed that the district's reserve funds were rapidly declining due to significant overspending. After pulling itself out of another financial crisis in 2011, the district's goal had been to keep its reserves at the equivalent of 10 percent of its overall budget—well above the minimum of 3 percent required by the California Department of Education—in case of any future problems.
At the beginning of 2018, the reserve had dropped from 9 percent to 6 percent, and by June of that year, the district estimated that it would soon drop to 3.1 percent. By September 2018, the district reported that the reserve had dropped to less than 1 percent. The district blamed the issue on its inability to find a permanent chief of business and increased spending on special education, though several community members at the March 10 board meeting insinuated that the district's last administration grossly misused funds.
In October 2018, the district started working with the SLO County Office of Education in an effort to get its finances back on track, and in December 2018, administrators announced that with the reserve far below the amount required by the state, nearly $3 million worth of cuts would need to be made in order to rebuild.
The district's reserve currently sits at about 2.8 percent. Despite the board of trustees' approval of $2.1 million in cuts from the 2019-20 budget in February 2019, and another $1.1 million in December 2019, the district will need to cut an additional $1.3 million from the 2020-21 school year's budget to avoid deficit spending.
Part of that, according to Chief Business Officer Brad Pawlowski, is because of an unexpected 20 percent increase in the district's insurance premium. Paso Robles Joint Unified, he said, is also struggling with a statewide enrollment decline, low rates of average daily attendance, and a cost of living adjustment decline.
Everyone can agree, Pawlowski said, that California's education funding model needs to change.
"We hope that will happen," Pawlowski said at the March 10 meeting. "But hope is not a strategy. We have to plan as if it's not going to change."
That means cutting ongoing expenditures, he said, like the upkeep of Bauer Speck Elementary School.
Though nothing is official, the board directed staff on March 10 to further investigate the potential closure of Bauer Speck and the dissemination of its teachers and roughly 470 students to other district school sites, despite pleas from Bauer Speck parents and teachers.
Paso Robles resident Kellymarie Otto said the transition would be especially challenging for the school's high number of special needs students, including her first grader. She suggested the board consider other cost-saving measures, several of which Bauer Speck employees included in a packet that was given to trustees.
"Do you want to be the district that fails," Otto said, "or the district that overcomes?"
Board members, who largely blamed state politics for Paso's financial crisis, said they have no choice but to at least consider the closure.
"Unfortunately all of you, virtually all of you, are here because you want to defend something that's important to you," Superintendent Curt Dubost said at the meeting. "We can't do it all. We're going to have to make some difficult decisions." Δ